Published on July 10th, 2008 | by Chris0
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Call me a sucker for stuff like this, but I really liked 1982's The Atomic Cafe. It's a roughly 90-minute film constructed entirely of bits and pieces of government films from various sources, news footage, and a soundtrack chock full of period pieces which further illustrate the tone of the picture.
We start the film with the infamous Trinity bomb test in New Mexico, and quickly move on to the August 1945 "Fatman" and "Little Boy" drops in Japan. From there, through the use of all these stock sources, we get a glimpse into the progression of the United States' nuclear program as seen (or should have been seen) from the public perspective.....
Which is what this movie is all about. The films used range from military training and information films, to news clips, to government documentary/stock-type footage, and as the film progresses, we get more of the 1950's and 1960's Civil Defense films, you know, "Duck and Cover," that sort of thing.
From an educational standpoint, The Atomic Cafe shows just how silly the whole hysteria surrounding the threat of nuclear war became. From the Admiral defending the Bikini Atoll tests, "It will *not* blow a hole in the ocean floor, allowing all of the water to run down the hole!", to the sheer paranoia and hysterics surrounding fallout shelters and the like.
What's more interesting is the apparent ignorance that we seemed to have regarding the after-effects of a nuclear explosion. "It's OK, Jimmy, after the explosion we'll go outside and start cleaning up." Dude! Particularly disturbing, at least to me, was the footage of the tactical weapons test involving actual troops in close proximity to the detonation. Literally in sight of the blast, these guys were asked to march out of their foxholes after the shock wave passed over their heads, and march right into the blast zone before the cloud had subsided. Madness!
The music used throughout most of the picture was just brilliantly chosen. Country and folk style songs with titles like, "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb", "Uranium", and "Old Man Atom." Overlaid with images of the madness of the day its really worth a laugh.
But that's one of the faults of The Atomic Cafe. The movie starts quite seriously, looking at the aims of the original bomb project, complete with grisly images of the aftermath of Hiroshima, and dealing with the residents of Bikini Atoll, etc. From there, though, it gradually gets, for lack of a better word, just silly. Sillier and sillier. The initial serious tone of the film gradually fades away to an all-out parody, as they stitch together what an actual attack on the US may have looked like, and manage to visually connect it back the Hiroshima attack.
Overall, the movie has a decidedly anti-nuclear standpoint, that's very, very clear. Some of the news and TV footage used is a bit propagandish (is that a word) in its own right, picking and choosing only the most extreme and outlandish quotes, whether they were in context or not, to illustrate that "nuclear war is bad, mkay?" It's not a very balanced viewpoint, and that's alright, you're allowed.
Viewed today, it's sort of interesting to draw a parallel between the viewpoints and paranoia of the cold war era to our "war on terror" today. If what we see is to be believed, what we're witnessing today is just a drop in the bucket compared to the McCarthy-ism and "need to know" stuff that went on then.
I would put The Atomic Cafe up as a "companion piece" to the amazing Trinity & Beyond, which beatifully documented in a quite un-biased manner the span of nuclear weapons testing in the US and the Soviet Union. Watch the two together and imagine yourself being assaulted by these "information" films, not really understanding what is going on, and having little choice but believing what the government tells you.
In spite of the not-so-subtle bias, and the degradation into out-and-out silliness, I have to give The Atomic Cafe a big eight out of ten. The lens into history here is just too good to pass up, but view with a grain of salt.
The Atomic Cafe
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On its 20-year anniversary, and not a moment too soon, THE ATOMIC CAFE is back to provide us with a much-needed release of comic energy. A dark comedy in the truest sense, this timeless classic took the nation by storm when it first debuted in 1982...
DVD InformationBinding: DVD
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Original Release Date:
- Paul Tibbets
- Harry S. Truman
- W.H.P. Blandy
- Brien McMahon
- Lloyd Bentsen
- Factory sealed DVD
Summary: In spite of the not-so-subtle bias, and the degradation into out-and-out silliness, I have to give The Atomic Cafe a big eight out of ten. The lens into history here is just too good to pass up, but view with a grain of salt.